February 3, 1959 will forever be known as “The Day The Music Died” when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper (J. P. Richardson) were killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. The day has been immortalized in Don McLean’s hit “American Pie.”
When Elvis Presley, the undisputed King of Rock ’N’ Roll, entered the army in March of 1958, Holly was left as the leading voice, with such hit songs as “That’ll Be The Day,” “Rave On,” and “Peggy Sue.” Valens had rocketed to fame with the hits “La Bamba” and “ Donna,” while the Big Bopper had had a major hit with “Chantilly Lace.” It’s safe to say all three singers still had much music left in them, and rock has forever been poorer because of their deaths.
Winter Dance Party
Holly signed on to a tour of the midwest, called the Winter Dance Party, which was slated to cover 24 cities in 24 days, starting on the 23rd of January, with travel between cities by bus. Since Holly had ended his relationship with The Crickets in November 1958, he put together a new band, consisting of Waylon Jennings on bass, Tommy Allsup on guitar, and Carl Bunch on drums. The tour was joined by new stars Valens and the Big Bopper, along with Dion and The Belmonts.
Shortly after the tour began, problems cropped up with the transportation. First, the organizers had not adequately planned the amount of time required to bus from city to city, forcing the performers spend more time traveling than expected. Shortly after the tour began, the heater on the bus failed, causing more problems. Flu broke out, and then spread among the musicians. On top of that, Carl Bunch got frostbite, forcing him to be hospitalized in Ironwood, Michigan. The tour bus was replaced by a school bus and the tour continued.
By the time they reached Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly had had enough. He made the fateful decision to charter a plane to Fargo, North Dakota, just across the state line from the next tour stop at Moorhead, Minnesota. This would give him some much needed rest and the opportunity to wash his clothes.
Carroll Anderson, the owner of the Surf Ballroom where they played in Clear Lake, arranged for a charter plane with Dwyer Flying Service of nearby Mason City, Iowa. Arrangements were made for Roger Peterson to pilot the craft. Peterson was a 21-year old local with over four years of flying experience.
The Coin Toss
The contracted plane was a Beechcraft 35 Bonanza which could seat only three passengers, in addition to the pilot. Obviously, Holly would be one of the passengers. The big question was who would fill the other seats.
The Big Bopper had the flu, and requested Waylon Jennings’ seat, unbeknownst to Holly. When Buddy learned Waylon had given his seat to the Bopper, he jokingly quipped to Waylon “well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up,” to which Waylon responded “well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” The oft-hand remark haunted Jennings till the day he died.
But who would take the remaining seat? Unfortunately, there are multiple stories about how Valens ended up with the seat. Dion has claimed the seat was his, being one of the headliners, but he backed out after learning the charter fee was $36 per person, and he gave the seat to Valens. The fee was the same amount his parents paid in monthly rent when Dion was growing up, and it just seemed too much for one flight. Allsup stated he tossed a coin in the dressing room and lost out to Valens. Local disc jockey Bob Hale, who MC’d the concert, claims he tossed the coin in a room just off the stage, with Valens winning the seat.
Shortly thereafter, Anderson drove the trio to the airport in Mason City to catch the flight.
A light snow was falling, with low clouds and winds of 20-32 mph when the passengers arrived at the airport. Unknown to Peterson, the pilot, the weather along the flight path was deteriorating. He should have received that information during his pre-flight briefing, but he did not.
The plane departed at 12:55 am on the 3rd of February. The owner of Dwyer Flying Service watched as the plane took off, watching the tail lights as it turned to the northwest, climbed briefly, then gradually descended out of sight. By 1:00 am, radio contact had been lost, and despite repeated attempts, was never re-established.
The crash was found shortly after 9:30 am, only 6 miles northwest of the airport in a cornfield. Investigations revealed the aircraft impacted the ground, going about 170 mph, in a nose-down attitude and steeply banked to the right. Apparently, the right wing first hit the ground, causing the plane to cartwheel across the cornfield. Holly, Valens, and the Bopper were thrown from the plane, dying instantly of severe brain trauma. Peterson’s body was found in the wreckage; he also died from brain trauma.
The rest of the musicians had already left Clear Lake for Minnesota, leaving it to Anderson to identify the bodies.
The official investigation by the Civil Aeronautics Board blamed the crash on the pilot. Despite over four years of flight experience, he was only certified to fly by sight, and not on instrumentation alone. In addition, he was unfamiliar with the old-style attitude gyroscope on the plane, which probably misled him to believe the plane was climbing when in fact it was descending.
Aftermath and Influence
Maria Elena Holly, Buddy’s widow, was pregnant at the time. She learned of his death while watching television and suffered a miscarriage shortly thereafter due to psychological trauma
The Winter Dance Party continued on, despite the losses. Waylon took over as lead vocalist for Holly for the remainder of the tour.
Holly was buried in Lubbock, Texas, while Valens was buried in his hometown of Los Angeles. The Big Bopper was buried in Beaumont, and Peterson was buried in Iowa.
With the passage of time, the plane crash has taken on something of a mythical air. In 1971, Don McLean immortalized that day in his 1971 hit “American Pie.” Holly’s life story was told on the big screen in 1978 with Gary Busey as the lead in The Buddy Holly Story. Valens was portrayed by Lou Diamond Phillips in the move La Bamba in 1987.
Rest In Peace Buddy, Ritchie, and J.P. You are missed.
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